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Sandwich reinvention

You might have guessed it but Technomic research confirms the trend: Sandwiches are the most menued entrée items across all segments and cuisine types. From 2010 through September, 2012, sandwiches beat out the next popular items, main salads and pizza, by a large margin. In the past couple of years, sandwich chains within the Technomic Top 150 fared much better than their limited-service counterparts across the industry and are expanding.

It seems that Americans’ appetite for sandwiches is unlimited. But so is their feeling that there’s room for more creativity between the bread. And that bread needs to go beyond plain white and rye; whole grain, artisanal and ethnic carriers are in demand.

At the 230-unit Jason’s Deli, Pat Herring, director of research and development at the chain’s San Antonio headquarters, monitors menu trends. “After 37 years, the Club Royale remains our top seller. But we work hard to stay fresh. Our customers watch the Food Network, and Millennials are food adventurers.” What they crave are global and regional specialties, pumped up flavor and healthier combos.

Sandwich craft

“Think of a sandwich like a fine dining entrée with protein that’s dressed with starch, vegetable and sauce. The layering of ingredients is key. We take care not to overly press the build—air between ingredients leads to a clean mouthfeel,” explains Stefano Cordova, senior vice president of food and beverage innovation at Au Bon Pain, based in Boston. His menu reflects that thinking, with signatures such as Chicken Pomodoro on ciabatta (all natural chicken, fresh mozzarella, asiago cheese, tomato spread and roasted tomatoes).  

“A sandwich is a dexterous thing that gets us back to our Neanderthal roots, long before silverware. At home it’s something quick, at the bar, it’s handy; in the dining room it can be ‘chefy’ or comforting,” comments area executive chef John Brand of Omni Hotels and Resorts. Street food, adds Brand, is another example of dexterous comfort food that has resurged. Brand initiated an Omni-wide, international chef competition to identify sandwiches for the company’s “Simply Street Food” LTO. Two of the successful items that resulted are the Short Rib and Vermont Cheddar Sandwich from Omni Parker House and the  Moroccan-inspired Chicken Musakhan Sandwich, featuring chicken thighs, house- made ketchup, a sumac-garam masala spice blend, onion and spicy garlic pickle from the Abu Dhabi Omni chef.

Newsy carriers

Sliced white bread hasn’t disappeared from the sandwich build, but new options abound. Gluten-free bread is a growing trend. As Herring at Jason’s Deli emphasizes, it’s hard to be 100 percent gluten-free in a sandwich shop, but he serves Udi’s gluten free bread baked to a proprietary recipe. The Melt, a San Francisco-based grilled cheese concept, offers house-made, gluten-free bread blended from brown rice flour, tapioca and potato starch. Monitoring the trend for waffles as a sandwich medium, The Melt also menus gluten-free waffles made from rice flour.

Au Bon Pain (with bread in its name), takes its proprietary bread seriously; the kitchen uses a culture starter and slow fermentation to add deep-layered flavors. Multigrain baguette and ancient grain ciabatta (right) are newer additions. 

Bagels are top sellers during all dayparts with special emphasis on healthier options. Einstein Noah group successfully introduced the Super Grain (quinoa) bagel last year. Bagel thins have gained a large percent of sales. Skinny wheat bagels are popular at Au Bon Pain. Yet diners are always seeking something new. Herring is exploring telera rolls for Cuban sandwiches at Jason’s Deli.

Spread the condiments

“People like to be entertained with flavor. That’s the extra role for the condiment,” claims Cordova. Chipotle aioli is the top substitute for mayonnaise at Au Bon Pain. Cordova is working on a kimchee spread and looking to increase fresh herbs and seeds in recipes. The chef incorporates a touch of sweetness to his spreads along with acid and fat, which “help break down the protein molecules,” he adds on a technical note.

Au Bon Pain recently added Tuscan tomato spread to its repertoire. Designed to accompany the Tuscan grilled cheese sandwich, Cordova makes the spread from freshly cooked tomatoes and onions puréed with fresh mozzarella. The spread mirrors the flavors of the suggested soup pairing of tomato basil bisque.

The diversity of spreads at other concepts includes hummus, sriracha chili sauce, lemon rosemary cream cheese, South western cilantro lime spread, chipotle-orange mayonnaise, salsa verde, basil pesto, Thai peanut and several mustards.

Global & regional sensations

According to Technomic, the favorite sandwich across all segments and cuisines is chicken. Yet chicken is an example of how global and regional makeovers work on the menu.

At the two wine-country locations of the Oakville Grocery based in Napa, California, the top sandwich is fried chicken, smoked bacon remoulade, house dills and shredded lettuce on a roll. Other concepts are menuing chicken bahn mi or bao (Vietnamese- and Chinese-inspired sandwiches), chicken tortas (via Mexico) and chicken flatbread sandwiches with a Middle Eastern accent.

Jason’s Deli goes regional with their signatureNew Orleans Muffaletta and other sandwiches, such as the Chicago club with smoked turkey and bacon. As chipotle and Thai flavor profiles go mainstream, Herring is using under-represented New Mexican Hatch chilies in developing his new telera sandwich.

Meat muscles in

For hearty eaters, classic beef sandwiches remain favorites. At Capriotti’s, the cheesesteak holds steady in the top five sandwiches. The 87-unit chain began in Wilmington, Delaware, near Philadelphia, the home of the original cheesesteak. Pulled pork and Cuban sandwiches—like the Jason’s Deli version featuring pecan-smoked pork loin—are gaining sandwich fans too.

As Au Bon Pain rolled out five new hot oven sandwiches in 2012, the Black angus and cheddar evolved into the top seller. The top seller of the Omni Simply Street Food initiative was the short rib and Vermont cheddar version from the chef at the Boston Omni Parker House Hotel. Dave Zino, executive chef for the Beef Checkoff Program, believes that meat, with its “sense of comfort” will remain a sandwich staple.

“We see many applications of the newer boneless, country style rib cut that inspire ‘slow good’ braising. Flatiron steak is another good cut for sandwiches—the last thing you want is a customer gnawing on tough muscle. The broad availability of shredded chuck makes sandwiches a blank canvas for more day-parts. Think beef burritos for breakfast,” adds Zino.

An idea that pops

At the beef-centric Urban Farmer restaurant in Portland, Oregon’s Nines Hotel, chef Chris Starkus was looking for an innovative way to cook some “off cuts” of the cow. “We bring in whole animals and butcher them in-house for our steakhouse menu,” says Starkus. “The portions we don’t use get braised for sandwiches, made into headcheese and other applications.”

Starkus thought a house-baked Gruyere popover would make the perfect carrier for the braised beef—its hollow center absorbs the jus and makes for an extremely satisfying sandwich. What’s more, popovers were brought in by the first Oregon settlers, rooting the sandwich in the area’s culinary history.

According to Starkus, a successful sandwich balances salty, sweet and acidic notes through four essential components: a great tasting protein, housemade bread, some juiciness from tomato or a sauce and a fresh element. So far, his Open-Faced Braised Beef Sandwich boasted three out of four; he topped it with a “mirepoix” salad to add freshness. “The salad is based on the classic culinary trio in a mirepoix. It combines celery leaves, shaved carrot and red onion and really brings out the flavors of the braised beef,” he explains.

The sandwich is offered during Happy Hour for $5. “Hopefully, it entices guests to order another or stay for dinner and order a whole meal,” says Starkus.  

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